Project Management – just what does it entail?

by Frank 15. April 2012 06:00

In a previous career with mainframes I spent eight years as a large scale project manager and then a further two years as the international operations manager managing a number of project managers at troubled projects around the world. Those ten years taught me a great deal about what it takes to be a successful project manager and conversely, why some project managers fail.

Notice that I said why some project managers fail, not why some projects fail. It is cause and effect; projects only fail when the project manager fails to do the job required. This particular concept separates good project managers from bad project managers. Good project managers take full responsibility for the success or failure of their projects, bad project managers don’t.

Good project managers are ‘glass-half-full’ people, bad project managers are ‘glass-half-empty’ people. Good project managers are leaders, bad project managers are victims.

So the first piece of advice is to choose your project manager carefully. You want a strong willed, bright and energetic doer, not a facilitator or politician. You want a strong leader, not a careful and political follower; you want Jesus, not the disciples.

The next piece of advice is that you should set quantitative criteria for project success. No ambiguity or motherhood or weaselly words, as the Dragnet cop used to say, “Just the facts Mam.” In my day it was easy, we had to install the new hardware and software, convert from the old system, design and program the new applications and then take the whole system through a 30 day acceptance test with 99% uptime. There was always a contract and the conditions of acceptance were always clearly laid out and assiduously referred to by the customer. We knew what we had to achieve and there was no ambiguity.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with a lot of projects is that the conditions for acceptance and success are not clearly articulated or documented. But, a good project manager will always make sure that the scope and objectives and expected outcomes are clearly defined regardless before accepting the challenge. The bad project manager on the other hand is always happy that there isn’t a clear definition of success because the bad project manager wants to make judging his or her performance as difficult as possible.

I once fired a project manager who told me in three meetings in a row that he had not completed the requested project plan because the project was too complex. Obviously the more complex the project the more its needs a comprehensive project plan otherwise it will be impossible to manage. My failed project manager didn’t want to document the project plan because he didn’t want deadlines and he didn’t want to be judged on how well he was meeting deadlines.

It sounds like an over-simplification but if you want a successful project then choose a successful project manager, one who accepts full responsibility for all outcomes and one who is committed to success.

As part of the interview process, ask them what their philosophy of responsibility is. As an example, here is one I always used.

“Everything that happens is due to me because everything that happens is either due to something I did or something I didn’t do.”

I have never found a good project manager who had a problem with this credo. Bad project managers on the other hand, see it as anathema to their survival strategies. Good project managers accept full responsibility for success or failure, bad project managers do not.

Good project managers also don’t spend all day in an office playing with Excel and Microsoft Project. Nor do they spend all day in meetings or on conference calls. Good project managers integrate themselves into the very bowels of the project and ‘walk-and-talk’ on a daily basis.

Walk and talk refers to the practice of meeting with real workers at all levels of the project, especially end users. Good project managers make the time to talk to end users every day and because of this they know more about what is happening than any senior manager. They are ‘in-touch’ with the project and are constantly aware of changes, problems and successes. Good project managers who practice the walk and talk technique are never surprised in project or management meetings because they always know more than anyone else at the meeting and they always have the very latest information. This is probably why they are such good project managers. If you aren’t prepared to invest at least one hour of your time every day walking and talking to real users then you shouldn’t be a project manager.

Good project managers also always know how to select and manage their team. Because they are natural leaders, management is a natural and comfortable process for them. There is never any doubt in a good project manager’s team about who the leader is and who will make the final decisions and then take responsibility for them. There is no disseminated responsibility. The opposite is always true in a bad project manager’s team with disseminated responsibility and no clear record of who made what decision.

The calibre of the bad project manager’s team is always significantly lower than that of the good project manager’s team. This is because mediocre people always hire mediocre people and a bad project manager is afraid of strong capable staff because he or she finds them threatening. A good project manager on the other hands loves working with strong capable people and revels in the ongoing challenge of managing them. A good project manager is never threatened by strong capable staff, au contraire; he seeks them out because they make it easier for him (or her) to be successful.

There is no magical formula that will ensure a successful project, completed on time and on budget and with all contracted deliverables accepted and signed off. It also doesn’t matter what project management tool you use as long as you do use a project management tool. I don’t particularly like the latest version of Microsoft Project (and that is an understatement) but if required I could use it to manage any project no matter how big and how complex. It isn’t the tool; it is the person that counts.

This is simple advice like my favourite about how to do well on the stock market, “buy low and sell high.” If you want a successful project, always start with a successful project manager. He or she will take care of everything else.

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